Despite COVID-19, Kent City School District Support Staff Still Attempting to Work at Full Capacity

 Ky Kallinowski and Gershon Harrell

The Kent City School District shut their doors in March due to the spread of COVID-19, forcing students to complete the remainder of their school year online, rendering the support staff such as bus drivers, maintenance workers and custodians nearly jobless. 

One of the big issues was losing their bus drivers, especially considering there were a handful of drivers who worked during the summer months. 

“Basically they got paid,” said Transportation Supervisor, Rick Lewis. “We kept everybody on the payroll so that we wouldn’t lose bus drivers, and it was the right thing to do.” 

Jim Soyars, Director of Business Services for the Kent City School District said that after the schools were shut down none of the support staff were laid off. 

Soyars who oversees transportation workers, maintenance, custodians and secretaries, said they brought in their maintenance and custodial staff on as needed basis. 

“We made sure everyone understood…you’re going to continue to get paid, we’re going to get through this,” Soyars said. 

 Soyars said that support staff and the support union have been working with them on keeping the school district safe for students. 

“We had people do duties and jobs that are not normally in their regular classification or under what they do,” Soyars said. 

Such as having maintenance and custodial staff clean out lockers at the end of the school year last year, or having them wipe down popular touched areas that may spread COVID-19. 

Now in the middle of October and two months to the end of the semester the challenge has been maintaining order and keeping people working. 

Lewis said, drivers have had to combine their bus routes because they don’t have as many students attending in person classes as they did pre-COVID-19. 

According to Lewis, they transported around 2,000 students in the district and now the number of students have significantly decreased.

With Portage County being a level 3 red zone for COVID-19, the district introduced a hybrid model of learning where students are doing remote learning on Monday and then sending half the students to school on Wednesday and Friday, and the other half Tuesday and Thursday. 

The district also offered a full time remote option to students that felt uncomfortable coming to school in the midst of the pandemic. 

To accommodate the Monday where bus drivers aren’t working, the district sends their bus drivers to the elementary school where they clean the playground equipment. 

Currently there are around 1700 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Portage County, and within the school district they have had a total of 10 cases. 

Bus drivers now have to follow the mandated guidelines and procedures that keep them and the students safe such as, wearing a face mask, keeping hand sanitizer on the bus, disinfecting their bus and making sure students are social distancing. 

Lewis said there are 28 seats on a bus and with fewer student riders social distancing has been fairly easy. 

“We keep the seat directly behind the driver taped off,” Lewis said.  “Nobody sits there and so there’s 27 seats and everybody goes one to a seat, other than family members who could sit together.”

Soyars said out of all the support staff the bus drivers suffered the most due to the pandemic.

“Our custodians are full time, our mechanics are full time, secretaries are full time, our bus drivers are normally either four hours a day, or five and a half hours a day,” Soyars said. 

He said he feels like they lost the most because there were no field trips or extra curricular activities they could have transported students to. 

“They’ve really lost the opportunity for a lot of extra things that they usually drive for, and I feel really bad for that. But there’s not really anything we can do at this time,” Soyars said. 

Tina Kucinic is a veteran bus driver for Kent City Schools, she said that this year has been tough for drivers.

“The summer was difficult when we shut down in March because all of us drivers lost our fields trips, sporting, summer school, we all took a hit financially that way,” said Kucinic.

According to Kucinic, these bus trips are known as “night-runs” and pay overtime premiums. Without this added bonus of working hours, she says some drivers have turned to other work to supplement their incomes.

Despite the strange times, Kucinic says that for her, everything is pretty much normal.

“I still go in everyday and do my run, the only thing that is different is we are not transporting as many students,” said Kucinic.

Bus drivers for Kent City Schools transport around 3,000 students when running at full capacity and nearly still around 2,000 despite many students learning from home. While some bus drivers were worried about contacting so many students daily, Kucinic said that she is far from worried.

“I myself am not anxious to be around anybody, not 10-15 kids, co-workers or anybody, I have not been paranoid,” said Kucinic.

In spite of the fact that bus drivers are still able to run somewhat normally, there has been another group who is impacted by the lack of bussing, walkers.

With bus capacity now limited, many Kent students are forced to walk their way to school. Kent Roosevelt High School has a 2 mile radius in which students are unable to be bussed and must walk to school.

“I lived so close, that the bus driver wouldn’t even pick me up, I have never ridden a bus to school,” said Alfred Mitov, a student who was forced to walk to school in Kent from Kindergarten until 10th grade when he was able to drive himself.

While living within the walking-zone, students are assumed to be safe to walk to school, no matter the weather. This is in spite of the fact that there are 2 dangerous stretches of road directly behind and in front of both the high school and Stanton Middle School.

Kent Roosevelt High School’s 2 mile radius walk-zone. Note the 2 highlighted stretches of dangerous road. Image courtesy of Google Earth 2020.
State Route 43 from Riverbend, a highly student-populated neighborhood in Kent which is forced to walk across Rt. 43, save for a few in the back of the development.

“Absolutely. Walking there or even driving would be dangerous,” said Mitov.

In front of Roosevelt High School there is a mile long stretch of 4-lane highway that students are required to cross. There are sidewalks and crosswalks but still, there are busses that would be passing by these students repeatedly on their commute.

Behind the high school is an even more treacherous stretch of road, which has no sidewalks, many potholes, blind curves and construction. Despite all of these factors, the City of Kent nor Kent City schools have installed a safe walking area for students despite the campus it is on being nearly 20 years old.

Hudson Road in Kent, just a 1/4 from the middle school, these are the roads students are forced to walk down if a bus does not pick them up.

“I thought it is a little ridiculous,” said Mitov.

The neighborhood that he lives in is divided into 2 sub-sections, a bus enters, passes his house, then exits by passing his house again. This all happens while he must prepare to run across a 4-lane road or make a 10 minute walk down to the crosswalk. Despite this, no school bus ever picked Mitov up for school.

While certainly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kent City Schools and their auxiliary departments continue to provide the best service that they can to their students. For more information on COVID-19 regulations in Ohio visit https://coronavirus.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/covid-19/home.

https://twitter.com/kykalinowski/status/1321471154687746048?s=20

Work Divided:

Ky Kalinowski: conducted interviews with Tina Kucinic and Alfred Mitov, collaborated on writing for interviews pulled audio for all 4 interviews and highlighted quotes, uploaded and designed the webpage, took on location pictures and designed the map of Kent Roosevelt’s walking zone.

Gershon Harrell: conducted interviews with Rick Lewis and Jim Sawyers, proposed the story and typed most of the article, researched outside information regarding regulations and guidelines, collaborated on the structure and writing, as well as being the lead contact in finding our 3 sources at the transportation department.